KH Ara's art wasn't celebrated like Raza, Husain's; a new exhibition hopes to remedy that
The son of a bus driver, KH Ara cleaned cars for a living, and painted because art was his life. A new exhibition hopes to illuminate his nearly overlooked artistic legacy.
The last time Krishnaji Howlaji Ara’s art was showcased some 40 years ago, India was in the throes of the national Emergency.
KH Ara was part of the Bombay Progressive Group — of which FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain grew to be icons. It is curious thing, then — Ara’s relative obscurity, his marginal reputation as an artist and even the unacknowledged background of his life’s personal struggles. KH Ara: A Private Collection, an exhibition of 22 paintings reprised from the personal collection of family that was close to the artist, provides an opportunity to redress that oversight.
There are a number of interesting things to consider about Ara’s reputation which dwarfs in front of those he helped found the Progressive Group.
“Ara was a gem in many ways because he was simply into his art. While other artists moved abroad and gained a reputation, he stayed back, and tried to mentor artists who struggled both with real life and artistic imagination,” Qaroon Thapar, curator of the exhibition and a collector himself, says. Ara was discovered by critic and then editor of the Illustrated Weekly Walter Langhammer, who forced him to join the JJ School of Art. The son of a bus driver, Ara cleaned cars for a living, and painted to have a life. And it is perhaps it was due to his dedication and rooted-ness that he seldom chased the riches that the world of art had begun, in his time, to promise.
What Ara is talked about most in the context of is the nude, the female form and the way he eroticiesd still life. It is even more interesting that Ara himself was asexual. “If you look at Souza who also drew nudes, you see a potency, a kind of boldness in the strokes. Ara on the other hand drew a very restrained version of the female form. And since he was asexual, as compared to Souza who wasn’t, his idea of the female nude form is generic. He is probably the first Indian artist to have done nudes," Thapar says.
Ara’s work has had its critics over the years. His obsession with still life and his eroticisation of the flower which many found uninspiring have received its fair share of beating. Thapar believes every artist has his or her place which they fill. Not everyone is after the same thing. Ara for his part, simply wanted to mentor and help other artists come up through life — something he struggled with himself.
The flower, the vase and the female form constantly surface in the works at show in this particular exhibit. It makes one wonder, where has his work been for the last 40 years. “It’s not that collectors did not have his works, or haven’t bought (them) over time. His paintings still sell at a Christie’s or a Sotheby’s auction for a fair price. The problem is that since his name has virtually disappeared it is impossible to get all of this work together. Even people who once collected some of his work cannot locate it later. So you can imagine, how difficult it was to gather these 22 paintings,” Thapar says. Of the family from whom Thapar has elicited these paintings, he says he can reveal nothing. “They are a well known Parsi family. But they want to be discreet. And so I can’t tell you more than the fact that they were close to Ara,” Thapar says.
Ara’s convergence on the female form and of the flowers in a vase, if taken as a metaphor, presents a very gentle, though unsubtle idea of beauty. Somewhere in these paintings, Ara likens the female form to a flower, and though many claim he eroticises one to the advantage of the other, Ara in all likelihood relegated sexuality to the outer frame, as if to banish what he did not even possess. Though his work can lack nuance, and at times suffer from photographer’s anxiety, Ara’s mesmerising palette is visible in its variety in the female form. Unlike Souza he paints matter-of-factly, clothing his women in a sheath of un-erotic tones of colour and texture. His meticulousness is best felt, if looked at up close.
As we talk about context and what makes an artist’s work — Gaitonde's for example — suddenly come alive decades later, Thapar points to the fact that there are trends, even in something as open to interpretation as art. “There is also a kind of artist. A number of the Progressives though good artists, were also personable, and knew how to handle the media, how to channel that energy. Souza was a rebel in that case. Ara on the other hand simply did not care for any of it,” he says. Is this, small yet significant showcase, a rewriting act of context for Ara which may finally bring him into the light? “I’m not sure," says Thapar. "What was important was how historically (over)due this was."
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